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Fairhavens Observatory: The Story


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Fairhavens Observatory:  The Story

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Perhaps at the root of all amateur astronomer’s dreams is to one day have a permanent observatory.  All those hours of driving, setting up equipment, tearing it down at zero-dark thirty can sometimes just suck the joy out of our hobby. 

After I retired from Steward Observatory Mirror Lab I wanted just that; my own observatory.  I could afford the equipment, but the years were catching up on me and it had almost become a necessity without downsizing all the equipment I had worked so hard and saved to acquire.

At that particular time I had completed a thirty-year military career, a BS, and nearly ten years at the Mirror Lab.  The wife and I had bought a beautiful home in the suburbs as a retirement home, and everything seemed stable.  Then I got the “bug”.

Shortly after, we sold our home in Tucson and bought a few acres close to a small desert town some forty miles east of Tucson.  It already had a good well and a nice, but small, mobile home.  It never occurred to me that I was nearly sixty-five years old at the time.  All I could see was my own observatory and beautiful night skies to explore.

This is the story of how “Fairhavens” (the name of my observatory) came to be.  My life style was never one that required planning:  It was a reactionary type of life.  As an enlisted soldier I only followed somebody else’s plans and ideas.  But now I was in the situation that I had to actually plan.

Already having most of the gear I needed, the building took priority.  I split the project into segments.   I did minimal research on the land and found out that every year during the Arizona monsoon season the water would run up to eight inches deep across my property.  The  easiest solution of pouring a flat slab certainly wasn’t going to work, so I decided to construct an elevated floor to stay above the flood waters.  Of course, that necessitated a permanent mounting for the two piers I wanted.  The dimension of the footprint would be ten feet by twelve feet with a roll-off roof.  I simply laid out some 2 x 4’s as a rough reference.  The plan being that I would then dig holes at the location for each pier and use rebar and concrete to support the piers and dug the holes.

 

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I visited a scrap metal yard in Tucson and acquired a pair of six foot long ¼” thick, 6 inch diameter used well casings.  I had circular ½”, 12” diameter plates welded to one end of the pipe.  At that point I had no idea how long those pipes would have to be to attach the telescope mount at the proper height so I left them longish.  It was essential to keep the piers vertical while pouring the concrete so I fashioned a “jig” to hold them steady.

 

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After completing the mounting concrete base, the piers were mounted, measured, cut to proper height, and had flanges welded on top so the telescope mounts could be adjusted for accuracy.

 

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Keeping the piers vertical would be a problem.  I remembered one of the lessons pounded into my Infantry brain back at the lab that three points forms a plane.  So, I had three ¾” holes drilled exactly 120 degrees apart in the bottom flange.  I then used ¾” 24” long J bolts fastened to the plates and extending down into the hole where they would be secured by concrete and rebar.

 

I had two piers placed where I wanted them with three anchor bolts to adjust their vertical aspect.  Now I needed to work on the actual floor of the observatory.  I decided on a subfloor leveled on concrete blocks.

 

 

NEXT CAME THE FLOOR

 

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The subfloor was covered with two layers of ¾” CDX plywood

 

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As is evident from the picture, the 24” J bolts extended up from the concrete base to the base flange could then be adjusted.  The holes in the floor to allow the concrete to extend above the floor level had a ½” spacing so vibration from the floor would not be transmitted to the piers.  It should be noted that each pier base consisted of 9 yards of hand mixed concrete honeycombed with 24 feet of 5/8ths inch rebar.  Clearly, they were not going anywhere!

 

 

NOW IT WAS TIME FOR THE WALLS

 

Now it was time to start on the walls.  I used standard 2x4 framing techniques and drilled holes to accommodate wiring later.

 

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I used 5/8th “ T111 siding that was fastened by screws to the framed walls.

 

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NOW CAME THE ROOF

 

Next came the most difficult aspect of the building: the roof.  Since I intended to have a roll-off type roof I had doubled the header for the frame wall using liquid nails and screws to hold the top two header boards together.  The top header board was 2x6”.  The cost of 4x6” straight lumber was prohibitive so I constructed my own by bonding two 2x4’s together.

 

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At this point I made my first BIG error.  I should have paid for the 4x6 beams.  Second, I should have used 90 degree angled runners and steel wheels.  In stead of the rubber wheels and “C” channel.

 

My design proved to be a major problem once the roof was built.  Not being an engineer, I had not factored the weight of the roof which was way too much for the type roller system I used.  I later replaced the steel channel with upside down 90 degree rail and replaced the rubber wheels with steel ones.  That alone would have been a nice correction except it changed all the measurements.  Essentially, I started over.

 

 

THE GANTRY

 

The last major building structure was the support system for the open roof.  Again, I had used the wrong steel channel and replaced it with the angle.  All of the height measurements were changed less than one inch, which proved to be a real problem.

 

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It was now time to populate the structure.  Over the next few years I had a variety of telescopes that kept me occupied.

 

 

VARIOUS TENANTS OVER THE YEARS

 

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A short time later, my wife of 50 years suffered kidney failure and needed a transplant.  I sold all of my equipment and property and moved back into town to the very neighborhood we left in the beginning.  So, I am downsizing to an AVX and smaller scope.  A sense of humor really helps.

 


  • Bob Campbell, Mike McShan, Moravianus and 20 others like this


32 Comments

Great story! Thanks for sharing!

    • Upstate New Yorker and thundherr like this
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Upstate New Yorker
Oct 01 2021 08:33 AM

A story that was very well told, but I am sorry that in the end you had to give up the hard won observatory.  I hope that all is well with you and your family.

 

I did have one question.  I assume that there were no gaps between the two piers and the floor because of carpeting, but did any desert creatures ever move into the building? And were there any creatures between the floor and the ground?  I think the observatory would be a refuge of sorts. 

    • yeldahtron, thundherr and kevinlowen like this

I am so impressed by your beautiful observatory! I am so sad by the outcome. I can really relate to the transplant, my father was on the list and sadly didn't last long enough to get a transplant. A whole level of stress in itself. Maybe your next goal is to have a star named after your sweet observatory. I hope you might be afforded the opportunity to make another one. Peace and bright stars. 

    • Upstate New Yorker and thundherr like this

Wonderful story.  I'm sorry you had to give it up.  

    • Upstate New Yorker and thundherr like this
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Simply Peter
Oct 02 2021 07:50 AM

I'm 70 and am hoping it's not to late to build an observatory.  How many cement blocks did you use to support your floor?

    • Upstate New Yorker and thundherr like this

Thank you all for the comments.  My wife is doing fine, though now in a wheelchair.  I recently started gathering my new smaller rig which is comprised of an 8" RC on an AVX mount.  I'm 75 now with years to come.  It's been a rough few years, but my wonderful wife of 55 years is healthy and we are doing well.  All in all, it's been a real character builder with no complaints.

    • Bob Campbell, JMP, yeldahtron and 8 others like this

A story that was very well told, but I am sorry that in the end you had to give up the hard won observatory.  I hope that all is well with you and your family.

 

I did have one question.  I assume that there were no gaps between the two piers and the floor because of carpeting, but did any desert creatures ever move into the building? And were there any creatures between the floor and the ground?  I think the observatory would be a refuge of sorts. 

I also used heavy construction felt to close the gap.  Surprisingly, I never had a problem with unwanted visitors.  I did find that I had to keep the door closed because I found that javelina (wild pigs) were curious enough to come through the door.  They are a bit like a stray dog and can be rather mean.

    • Upstate New Yorker and thundherr like this

I'm 70 and am hoping it's not to late to build an observatory.  How many cement blocks did you use to support your floor?

They were actually cinder blocks and I placed them three for each cross truss and more around the holes where there were joints.

    • thundherr likes this
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Bob Campbell
Oct 02 2021 10:38 PM

Thank you all for the comments.  My wife is doing fine, though now in a wheelchair.  I recently started gathering my new smaller rig which is comprised of an 8" RC on an AVX mount.  I'm 75 now with years to come.  It's been a rough few years, but my wonderful wife of 55 years is healthy and we are doing well.  All in all, it's been a real character builder with no complaints.

So glad she is doing fine, considering what you both have been through. Excellent story, told very well. An 8" RC is a pretty respectable scope in its own right. Why not have a star named after your wife, or better yet to the love and care you both have for each other for these 55 years.

    • Upstate New Yorker and thundherr like this

Thanks, Bob.  You are very kind.

    • thundherr likes this

 

Thanks, Bob.  You are very kind.

 

Her star is a bright one in Ursa Major, "The Love of my Life".  I always thought these things were kind of schmaltzy, but this time I know she will love it.  Thanks for the thought.

Clear Skies,

Pat

    • Bob Campbell likes this
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Upstate New Yorker
Oct 03 2021 10:59 AM

I'm 70 and am hoping it's not to late to build an observatory.  How many cement blocks did you use to support your floor?

I'm a little older than you and, not wanting to invest in an observatory, I instead opted for two JMI wheeley bars.  These work very well and all that I have to do is mount the telescopes.  Those I keep in protective cases made by Orion and Stellarvue.  It sounds like a lot of money, but it means I use my equipment more often, and I don't have to invest in a building, which is far more expensive.

    • Bob Campbell likes this
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Upstate New Yorker
Oct 03 2021 11:04 AM

I also used heavy construction felt to close the gap.  Surprisingly, I never had a problem with unwanted visitors.  I did find that I had to keep the door closed because I found that javelina (wild pigs) were curious enough to come through the door.  They are a bit like a stray dog and can be rather mean.

It's very clever construction and I admire you.  I asked about the critters because the other day we had a five foot Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, about 4-5 inches in diameter, right in front of my car.  Very rare to see.  The neighborhood banded together to escort the snake off property.  Commendably, we did not harm it.

 

I'm glad that your wife is better.  Please give her the best from all of us at Cloudy Nights.

    • Bob Campbell and thundherr like this

I'm a little older than you and, not wanting to invest in an observatory, I instead opted for two JMI wheeley bars.  These work very well and all that I have to do is mount the telescopes.  Those I keep in protective cases made by Orion and Stellarvue.  It sounds like a lot of money, but it means I use my equipment more often, and I don't have to invest in a building, which is far more expensive.

That's a really good solution that I have used in the past.  Unfortunately, I am a 100% disabled Vet with some really yucky shoulders (Airborne).  In fact, I'm getting a shoulder replacement in a few weeks.  So having a permanent spot is kind of a necessity.  I've got some plans underway that utilize an "Observatory Tent".  I will probably do an article on that if it works out okay.  Where there's a will, there's a way.

    • Upstate New Yorker likes this
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Bob Campbell
Oct 03 2021 02:58 PM

Her star is a bright one in Ursa Major, "The Love of my Life".  I always thought these things were kind of schmaltzy, but this time I know she will love it.  Thanks for the thought.

Clear Skies,

Pat

When my wife and I were first married, she got me a 'name a star kit' and I turned around and dedicated it to the  love we have for each other. Ours is in Hercules. Not schmaltzy at all.

 

CS Bob

    • Upstate New Yorker likes this

I think she's going to love it.  Being a career Infantry guy you gotta be tough all the time and not show any soft feelings.  I think I'm finely over that part.

Clear Skies,

Pat


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    • Bob Campbell, rjaszcz, Upstate New Yorker and 2 others like this

Very nice, Pat, very nice indeed.  I am glad to hear that things have turned out well for you and yours. Clearest of skies!

 

Steve

    • Bob Campbell and Upstate New Yorker like this

Very nice, Pat, very nice indeed.  I am glad to hear that things have turned out well for you and yours. Clearest of skies!

 

Steve

Thanks Steve.

    • Bob Campbell and Upstate New Yorker like this

Hi All,

I have been both surprised  and pleased at the response over this article about a backyard observatory.   I am glad that so many people have expressed pleasure at seeing it grow to it's finished stage.  Frankly, I sort of expected that.  What I did not expect, and pleases me and humbles me is the response over the last paragraph.  I had intended to end the article with a bit of humor, "a sense of humor", but instead I found a bunch of guys that either have experienced something similar in their own lives or have incredible insight.  It may sound kind of hokey for an old scarred warhorse to say, but I have been near tears when I see the number of responses that demonstrate compassion, caring, and good wishes.  I've showed this to my wife, who cares little about astronomy but loves people.  She says I have been right all along, that astronomy folks are more than tekkies and single-minded "toy first" groupies.  The racing clubs, both car and motorcycle were that way.  She just didn't think this bunch was any different.  Between her medical limitations and the pandemic she has had little contact with anyone.  She never touches the computer and so has no "friends" that way.  I took my laptop into her room and encouraged her to ignore the subject and just focus on the feedback.  She was led to tears.  "These really ARE good people", she said.  She has been encouraged and motivated to the extent that she walked for the first time since her surgery over five years ago.  When I asked her why she chose this particular time to start walking she said, "I need to walk for when we go to star parties"!  At our age she is motivated to find so many wonderful people that really seem to care, and she wants to be part of that.  I can't thank all of you enough for making something so good enter our lives just by being who "I" am and showing your true souls.  What a wonderful legacy to build such a truly compassionate and caring ethos as a foundation.  I owe you and I will never forget the tenderness and caring you all have shown here.  Thank you, my true friends.  You will always occupy a place in my heart set aside for special friends that, up until now, had plenty of room to spare.

To My Special Friends,

Pat 

    • Bob Campbell, Dagobert, Complexmystery and 5 others like this
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Bob Campbell
Oct 04 2021 01:31 PM

I think she's going to love it.  Being a career Infantry guy you gotta be tough all the time and not show any soft feelings.  I think I'm finely over that part.

Clear Skies,

Pat

Strong, lovely couple!

Strong, lovely couple!

Thanks, Bob.  Credit goes to the wife.  She put up with thirty years in the military, a professional motorcycle racing career, racing sprint cars until 65, countless toys.  She always knew she was my girl; THAT was never an issue!

    • Bob Campbell and Upstate New Yorker like this
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Bob Campbell
Oct 04 2021 02:41 PM

Hi All,

I have been both surprised  and pleased at the response over this article about a backyard observatory.   I am glad that so many people have expressed pleasure at seeing it grow to it's finished stage.  Frankly, I sort of expected that.  What I did not expect, and pleases me and humbles me is the response over the last paragraph.  I had intended to end the article with a bit of humor, "a sense of humor", but instead I found a bunch of guys that either have experienced something similar in their own lives or have incredible insight.  It may sound kind of hokey for an old scarred warhorse to say, but I have been near tears when I see the number of responses that demonstrate compassion, caring, and good wishes.  I've showed this to my wife, who cares little about astronomy but loves people.  She says I have been right all along, that astronomy folks are more than tekkies and single-minded "toy first" groupies.  The racing clubs, both car and motorcycle were that way.  She just didn't think this bunch was any different.  Between her medical limitations and the pandemic she has had little contact with anyone.  She never touches the computer and so has no "friends" that way.  I took my laptop into her room and encouraged her to ignore the subject and just focus on the feedback.  She was led to tears.  "These really ARE good people", she said.  She has been encouraged and motivated to the extent that she walked for the first time since her surgery over five years ago.  When I asked her why she chose this particular time to start walking she said, "I need to walk for when we go to star parties"!  At our age she is motivated to find so many wonderful people that really seem to care, and she wants to be part of that.  I can't thank all of you enough for making something so good enter our lives just by being who "I" am and showing your true souls.  What a wonderful legacy to build such a truly compassionate and caring ethos as a foundation.  I owe you and I will never forget the tenderness and caring you all have shown here.  Thank you, my true friends.  You will always occupy a place in my heart set aside for special friends that, up until now, had plenty of room to spare.

To My Special Friends,

Pat 

Thank YOU Pat and your lovely wife. I think the difference might be about astronomy folks is that this hobby is more solitary and thoughtful, and in a way when we observe, we are gazing into the face of God. Really makes you think.

 

Prayers to All,

 

Bob

    • rjaszcz likes this

Thanks, Bob.

That's a really good solution that I have used in the past.  Unfortunately, I am a 100% disabled Vet with some really yucky shoulders (Airborne).  In fact, I'm getting a shoulder replacement in a few weeks.  So having a permanent spot is kind of a necessity.  I've got some plans underway that utilize an "Observatory Tent".  I will probably do an article on that if it works out okay.  Where there's a will, there's a way.

They do make a motorized version of the wheeley bars.  If you have the option for an observatory with good site lines, I'd go that route 100%.  Pay a carpenter to follow the sky shed plans... Hardest part will be installing a garage door opener.  

 

Chris

My driveway has aboout a 15 degree slope down to the street on the west side of my house.  West is downtown Tucson so shooting to the West isn't any good.  My backyard is to the East and is unobstructed from the meridian to the horizon.  I think maybe it's more because of Fairhavens that I'm always trying to find a way to make a permanent installation.  Having your own observatory puts a hook in you that never seems to go away.  When I'm done I do another article on Fairhavens II.

    • Bob Campbell, Upstate New Yorker and DJL like this


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